The current COVID-19 pandemic has put a slight dampener upon our explorations over the past six weeks. Now that we are in our second, or is it third lock-down here in Wales it has restricted our horizons even more. this has encouraged us to look much closer to home, not by design but by necessity. Hiding in plain sight in the centre of a residential area in north Cardiff is a place with a geometrical shape included in its name, and I find that intriguing – St Denis’s Oval. Looking at the map this small area in Llanishen is very much an oval. But why? The roads here, in this residential area are not complicated enough to warrant such a large roundabout.
The oval hold a little know piece of history stretching back 1600 years. Running thought he centre is a natural spring, feeding a pretty unprepossessing pond. Samuel Lewis mentions the spring in his book A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, describing it as “The water of a spring called St. Dene’s Well is considered efficacious in the cure of scorbutic complaints”. I’m not sure how effective it would be today to bath in the water. It gives me a shudder thinking about the possibility.
With the development of nearby Roath Park and surrounding area at the end of the nineteenth century there was a danger that the spring might have been buried beneath a road and lost. But fortunately the Parks Committee were persuaded by John Hobson Mathews, the city archivist, of the historical and religious significance of the site.
He wrote: “Within the northernmost area of Roath Park is, as you are doubtless aware, a beautiful well or spring. It rises out of the soil with great force, and immediately forms a pool of considerable size, which is overhung with trees, and teems with aquatic growths of various kinds. The scene is one of wild and romantic beauty… It is known to old inhabitants as Ffynnon Llandenis…and has for ages past been regarded with veneration by the country folk. This was owing to its association with the memory of a Saint, and to the reputation it enjoyed as a healing well. Its water was believed to possess singular curative properties, especially in cases of rheumatic and scrofulous affections, and also for the eyes. It is certain that the water is of remarkable purity. I have been informed by old people living hard by, that down to quite recent times this well was resorted to for the cure of the maladies referred to above, and on account of the excellent quality of its water for ordinary drinking purposes – persons coming from great distances to procure the same”.
It is doubtful whether sufferers from scurvy, rheumatism, tuberculosis, or eye infections would find drinking the water or bathing in the spring beneficial today, and I am not at all tempted to ‘taste the water’. But we are fortunate that this little green oasis is still with us and reminds us again of Llanishen’s past.
In Welsh place names beginning with Llan are very common, and commonly supplies a label for a church, often followed by the name of the saint associated with the church. But, as usual it’s not always that easy. A llan may originally have referred to an enclosure, that over time became associated with a religious settlement. The founder of a new llan was obligated to reside at the site and to eat only once a day, each time taking a bit of bread and an egg and drinking only water and milk. This lasted for forty days, Sundays excepted, after which the land was considered sanctified forever. The typical llan employed or erected a circular or oval embankment with a protective stockade, surrounded by wood or stone huts. This circular plan can still be seen today, with the church and burial area still bounded by a circular wall. A classic example can be seen at Pennal in Merioneth where the road still follows the wall in an almost perfect circle, but there are other examples in the churches built on exposed hill all around Wales.
However, Llan can also be a mutation of Glan, meaning on the banks of a river, and there are a number Llan place names without a direct link to a religious settle of saint’s name.
In this case the parish is known as Llanishen, and refers to St Isan. So who was St Isan? So let’s settle down for a short story. One story has St Isan accompanying St Teilo from their monastery near Hereford in early in the 6th century. They established a religious settlement, or ‘Ilan’, on the banks of the river Taff, now known as Llandaff. Later, Isan was sent out to found new settlements, but he didn’t travel far before stopping at St Denys Oval and founding his hermitage. It’s only 5 miles from Llandaff. The spring provided an important source of water for the settlement, and over the centuries attracted a number of myths surrounding the healing powers of the water.
Baring-Gound & Fisher record Isan as a saint from the college of Illtyd (about 15 miles west of Cardiff), then an important religious centre in early Britain. It is assumed he was a contemporary of St Samson. And it is like he did exist, and founded churches here at Llanishen in Cardiff, but also further east at another Llanishen in Gwent. Isan may also be the Abbot Isanus who is also recorded as visiting St Illtyd just before his death.
The hagiography of St Illtyd’s death has Illtyd prophesing that “At the third watch of the night, I in your presence, shall be borne to heaven by the hands of angels, and brother Isanus shall see the angels in the form of golden angels carrying my soul away.
And on the fifteenth day following brother Athoclus shall pass to his rest, and you, Isanus, shall in like manner behold his soul borne away by angels as eagles having feathers of lead.
And after forty days shall Isanus finish his course and go to Christ.”
Heady stuff, and all designed to give lessons to the congregation on how to live a good life perhaps.
But there remains the mystery of why it is called St Denys’ Oval, or Llandennis Oval, or as the 1929 edition of the Ordinance Survey Map labels the spring as Ffynnon Dennis. It wasn’t unusual for names to be latinised in the immediate centuries following the Roman occupation of Britain. And Isan took a Latinised name of Dionysius, which over time mutated, or corrupted, to Dennis. It also appears that in St Isan has also been referred to as Isen/ Isan/ Issien/ Nissien/ Dionysius/ Denis . This does make it difficult to find any real history about him.
Today there is very little to see. The large oval is grass covered with a few mature trees, some of which grow from a mound to the western end. I don’t think the area has ever been excavated, but it has been proposed that the mound may represent a burial ground. This all emphasises that legends and history can be found in the most surprising of places.
Samuel Lewis. A Topographical Dictionary of Wales (London, 1849), pp. 69-75. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-dict/wales/pp69-75 accessed 1 March 2020.
Baring-Gould, S. & Fisher, J. (1911) The Lives of British Saints.